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Chapter 24

"We should all wear black for so mournful an occasion," said Rafaella Sal, spreading out her scarlet skirts.

"Father Abella is right. The occasion is sad enough without giving it the air of a funeral."

"Sad! Dios de mi alma! Will he return?"

Elena Castro shook her wise head. She was nearly twenty, and four years of matrimony had made her sceptical of man's capacity for romance. "Two years are long, and he will see many girls, and become one again of a life that is always more brilliant than our sun in May. His eyes will be dazzled, his mind distracted, full to the brim. To sit at table with the Tsar, to talk with him alone in his cabinet, to have for the asking audience of the Pope of Rome and the King of Spain! Ay yi! Ay yi! Perhaps he will be made a prince when he returns to St. Petersburg and all the beautiful princesses will want to marry him. Can he remember this poor little California, and even our lovely Concha? I doubt! Valgame Dios, I doubt!"

"Concha has always been too fortunate," said Rafaella with a touch of spite, for years of waiting had tried her temper and the sun always freckled her nose. The flower of California stood on the corridor of the Mission and before the church awaiting the guest of honor and his escort. A mass was to be said in behalf of the departing guests; the Juno would sail with the turn of the afternoon tide. Men and women were in their gayest finery, an exotic mass of color against the rough white-washed walls, chattering as vivaciously as if the burden of their conversation were not regret for the Chamberlain and his gay young lieutenants. Concha, alone, wore no color; her frock was white, her mantilla black. She stood somewhat apart, but although she was pale she commanded her eyes to dwell absently on the shifting sand far down the valley, her haughty Spanish profile betraying nothing of the despair in her soul.

"Yes, Concha has always been too fortunate," repeated Rafaella. "Why should she be chosen for such a destiny--to go to the Russian court and wear a train ten yards long of red velvet embroidered with gold, a white veil spangled with gold, a headdress a foot high set so thick with jewels her head will ache for a week--Madre de Dios! And we stay here forever with white walls, horsehair furniture, Baja California pearls and three silk dresses a year!"

"No one in all Russia will look so grand in court dress as our Conchita," said Elena loyally. "But I doubt if it is the dress and the state she thinks of losing to-day. She will not talk even to me of him--Ay yi! she grows more reserved every day, our Concha!--except to say she will wed him when he returns, and that I know, for did not I witness the betrothal? She only mocks me when I beg her to tell me if she loves him, languishes, or sings a bar of some one of our beautiful songs with ridiculous words. But she does. She did not sleep last night. Her room is next to mine. No, it is of Rezanov she thinks, and always. Those proud, silent girls, who jest when others would weep and use many words and must die without sympathy--they have tragedy in their souls, ay yi! And you think she is fortunate? True she is beautiful, she is La Favorita, she receives many boxes from Mexico, and she has won the love of this Russian. But --I have not dared to remind her--I remembered it only yesterday--she came into this world on the thirteenth of a month, and he into her life but one day before the thirteenth of another--new style! True some might say that it was an escape, but if he came on the twelfth, it was on the thirteenth she began to love him--on the night of the ball; of that I am sure."

Rafaella shuddered and crossed herself. "Poor Concha! Perhaps in the end she will always stand apart like that. Truly she is not as others. I have always said it. Thanks be to Mary it was Luis that wooed me, not the Russian, for I might have been tempted. True his eyes are blue, and only the black could win my heart. But the court of St. Petersburg! Dios de mi vida! Did I lie awake at night and think of Concha Arguello in red velvet and jewels all over, I should hate her. But no--to-day--I cannot. Two years! Have I not waited six? It is eternity when one loves and is young."

"They come," said Elena.

The cavalcade was descending the sand hills on the left, Rezanov in full uniform between the Commandante and Luis Arguello and followed by a picked escort of officers from Presidio and Fort. The Californians wore full-dress uniform of white and scarlet, Don Jose a blue velvet serape, embroidered in gold with the arms of Spain.

As they dismounted Rezanov bowed ceremoniously to the party on the corridor, and they returned his salutation gravely, suddenly silent. He walked directly over to Concha.

"We will go in together," he said. "It matters nothing what they think. I kneel beside no one else."

And Concha, with the air of leading an honored guest to the banquet, turned and walked with him into the dark little church.

"Why did you not wear a white mantilla?" he whispered. "I do not like that black thing."

"I am not a bride. I knew we should kneel together--it would have been ridiculous. And I could not wear a colored reboso to-day."

"I should have liked to fancy we were here for our nuptials. Delusions pass but are none the less sweet for that."

They knelt before the altar, the Commandante, Dona Ignacia, Luis, Santiago, Rafaella Sal and Elena Castro just behind; the rest of the party, their bright garments shimmering vaguely in the gloom, as they listened; and enough fervent prayers went up to insure the health and safety of the departing guests for all their lives.

Rezanov, who had much on his mind, stared moodily at the altar until Concha, who had bowed her head almost to her knees, finished her supplication; then their eyes turned and met simultaneously. For a moment their brains did swim in the delusion that the priest with his uplifted hands pronounced benediction upon their nuptials, that probation was over and union nigh. But Father Abella dismissed all with the same blessing, and they shivered as they rose and walked slowly down the church.

Dona Ignacia took her husband's arm, and muttering that she feared a chill, hurried the others before her. The priests had gone to the sacristy. Before they reached the door Rezanov and Concha were alone.

His hands fell heavily on her shoulders.

"Concha," he said, "I shall come back if I live. I make no foolish vows, so idle between us. There is only one power that can prevent our marriage in this church not later than two years from to-day. And although I am in the very fulness of my health and strength, with my work but begun, and all my happiness in the future, and even to a less sanguine man it would seem that his course had many years to run, still have I seen as much as any man of the inconsequence of life, of the insignificance of the individual, his hopes, ambitions, happiness, and even usefulness, in the complicated machinery of natural laws. It may be that I shall not come back. But I wish to take with me your promise that if I have not returned at the end of two years or you have received no reason for my detention, you will believe that I am dead. There would be but one insupportable drop in the bitterness of death, the doubt of your faith in my word and my love. Are you too much of a woman to curb your imagination in a long unbroken silence?"

"I have learned so much that one lesson more is no tax on my faith. And I no longer live in a world of little things. I promise you that I shall never falter nor doubt."

He bent his head and kissed her for the first time without passion, but solemnly, as had their nuptials indeed been accomplished, and the greater mystery of spiritual union isolated them for a moment in that twilight region where the mortal part did not enter.

As they left the church they saw that all the Indians of the Mission and neighborhood, in a gala of color, had gathered to cheer the Russians as they rode away. Concha was to return as she had come, beside the carreta of her mother, and as Rezanov mounted his horse she stood staring with unseeing eyes on the brilliant, animated scene. Suddenly she heard a suppressed sob, and felt a touch on her skirt. She looked round and saw Rosa, kneeling close to the church. For a moment she continued to stare, hardly comprehending, in the intense concentration of her faculties, that tangible beings, other than herself and Rezanov, still moved on the earth. Then her mind relaxed. She was normal in a normal world once more. She stooped and patted the hands clasping her skirts.

"Poor Rosa!" she said. "Poor Rosa!"

Over the intense green of islands and hills were long banners of yellow and purple mist, where the wild flowers were lifting their heads. The whole quivering bay was as green as the land, but far away the mountains of the east were pink. Where there was a patch of verdure on the sand hills the warm golden red of the poppy flaunted in the sunshine. All nature was in gala attire like the Californians themselves, as the Juno under full sail sped through "The Mouth of the Gulf of the Farallones." Fort San Joaquin saluted with seven guns; the Juno returned the compliment with nine. The Commandante, his family and guests, stood on the hill above the fort, cheering, waving sombreros and handkerchiefs. Wind and tide carried the ship rapidly out the straits. Rezanov dropped the cocked hat he had been waving and raised his fieldglass. Concha, as ever, stood a little apart. As the ship grew smaller and the company turned toward the Presidio, she advanced to the edge of the bluff. The wind lifted her loosened mantilla, billowing it out on one side, and as she stood with her hands pressed against her heart, she might, save for her empty arms, have been the eidolon of the Madonna di San Sisto. In her eyes was the same expression of vague arrested horror as she looked out on that world of menacing imperfections the blind forces of nature and man had created; her body was instinct with the same nervous leashed impotent energy.


Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

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